DENVER --In screenwriting, it's called a false dawn. In cliched form, it's pulling the rug out from under you.
But for Terrance Knighton, the wild momentum swings in the final moments of Sunday's 24-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs were encapsulated by a pair of gloves that weren't on his hands as the AFC West showdown wound down to its dying moments.
When DeMarcus Ware got to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith for an apparent strip-sack fumble and Nate Irving emerged triumphant with the football with 1:51 remaining, Sports Authority Field at Mile High rocked in celebration. Victory seemed assured.
Then came the replay … and a view that showed Smith's arm moving forward. By the time the play went under review, Knighton had already begun his post-game routine, removing his athletic tape and gloves.
"I thought the game was over," Knighton said.
Even Ware thought he was in the clear.
"I know I had the sack. I thought the rule that was put in this year was for that," said Ware. "Obviously not. You just have to take it with a grain of salt."
A dash that was applied without gloves -- at least for Knighton. There was no time for further equipment adjustments, and the Chiefs were getting ready to snap the ball after referee Gene Steratore's ruling. "When he came back in, I was wondering why he had no gloves, no tape on. He thought it was over," said linebacker Brandon Marshall. "But he came back in and he made a big play at the end."Knighton didn't need gloves to come up big in goal-to-go for no gain two plays later from the Denver 2-yard-line.
That set up the game-deciding play, when all Knighton needed was his right arm, and the quickness and awareness to break free from Kansas City center Rodney Hudson in time to deflect Smith's final pass off his right elbow. Smith's fourth-down pass fell incomplete, and the Broncos survived.
"I'd rather it hit my arms than theirs," Knighton said. "It worked out nice."
And it encapsulated the defense's first two games, which didn't go as planned, but saw them finish the job in the highest-leverage situations. Through two games, the Broncos have allowed 34 of a possible 63 points from nine possessions that crossed their 30-yard-line. Of course, the flip side of that statistic is that nine of 20 series have seen opponents drive past that point.
"We won the game on defense today, even though we didn't play to our standard," Harris said.
"That's the way you build your defense and the character, a bend-not-break mentality," said Ware. "On that fourth-and-two at the end, that's what shows our character, but a point of not giving up at all. I think that's building to a great defense."
But in Week 2, it was a defense pushed to the brink.
NEAR THE BREAKING POINT**
The gauntlet through which the Broncos passed in the final moments was daunting because of the physical test the defense had endured to that point in the second half: two possessions and part of a third that had chewed up 33 plays and 19 minutes, 18 seconds of clock time.
By the time Ware's sack was overruled, the Chiefs offense had run 38 plays since halftime -- nearly three times as many as the Broncos' 14. At that point, Kansas City had faced third downs 11 times since halftime, and successfully kept drives moving 10 times -- seven by their own conversions, and three by penalty.
"We're beating ourselves," said Harris, who was whistled for one of the third-down penalties that resuscitated a Chiefs drive. "It's nothing that they're doing to kill us. It's us."
"We did a lot of things to hurt ourselves," added Marshall. "I mean, we're a resilient group, definitely, and I think you saw that the first week, and now you saw it this week, so even though some bad things happened to us, we eventually come out and we make a big play."
First, Knighton made the third-down stop for no gain, halting the Chiefs' momentum on that down. Then came his deflection.
This is resilient defense, but it's a group still getting to know each other. Of the 11 starters, only three were in the starting lineup for Super Bowl XLVIII: Knighton, linebacker Nate Irving and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.
"When you have so many mental mistakes and dumb penalties and breakdowns and things like that, it's because we haven't played long enough together," said Harris.
Which is why it was appropriate that Knighton's play ended up deciding the game. Last year, he was a survivor of the injury plague that besieged the defense, made the crucial pass rush and sack to stop the Patriots on a fourth down in the AFC Championship, and taught Williams how to be a pro, cementing the future of the Broncos' interior defensive line.
Amid the changes, Knighton was a constant. Gloves or no gloves, the newly-minted team captain makes the play. Sunday, his work preserved the 2-0 start.
"We just had to keep responding," he said. "Nobody had their heads down. Coach (Jack) Del Rio brought the defense together and said, 'They're not in until they're in,' and make the play, do what we're supposed to do, and we did that."